top of page

The Midwest Connection

A true tale of crime even stranger than fiction




In the dog days of summer, 1984, the owner of an established Indiana bar in the heart of Notre Dame was executed in his home. The case sat cold for almost 4 years. What unfolded would link the humble midwestern city of South Bend to a world of mob ties, crooked cops, South American coups, and brushes with names that ring familiar to any Martin Scorsese buff.

"There was a certain element of 'Hollywoodness' to this case." - Andrea Lyon, Defense Attorney

The Original Corby's


Corby's Irish Pub is a rite of passage for Notre Dame students. The downtown South Bend hot spot is intertwined with the the university's history and tradition, even being immortalized on screen in the 1993 film Rudy. On the bar's marquee it reads "est. 1990", but its history dates back even further.



Corby's Irish Pub was once Corby's Tavern in the gritty Five Points section of Notre Dame, now more familiarly known as the freshly-paved Eddy Street Commons. Under the ownership of Harold Rowley the bar was often the scene of underage drinking, especially on football game days when crowds of underclassmen would flood in with the rest of the sea of students and fans. One night recalls 29 underage patrons being arrested during a raid. Rowley's establishment had its liquor license revoked in 1980 before having it reinstated by another vote.


"I will have to admit it was a probably a problem trying to control that", shared a sympathetic representative of Indiana's then-Alcohol Beverage Board.


When Harold Rowley was executed in his home on the summer night of July 31, 1984, the the rights to Corby's Tavern and his estate fell into uncertainty as he was in the process of a bitter divorce at the time of his death.


The bar was closed during this state of legal limbo, which left the filmmakers of Rudy without a place to shoot their scenes of the classic Notre Dame hangout. In its place they chose the Cap 'n Cork bar in downtown South Bend for their location. Once production wrapped, the owners kept the original Corby's namewhich itself was already in honor of Revered William Corby of the Congregation of Holy Cross, civil war chaplain of the Irish Brigade and early president of Notre Dame.


Football seasons went by and beer kept flowing, but the tangled plot of a murder for hire, lover's quarrel, and mafia ties behind that lied behind the fate of the original Corby's went largely unknown in the public eye.


The Ambush


James Eichorst was arriving at Harold Rowley's Twyckenham Hills home after the two had dinner on the evening of July 31, 1984. The South Bend suburb was ordinarily quiet that time of night. The 27 year-old Corby's manager was without hot water in his home, so his boss allowed him to run to his house to take a shower. They planned to meet back up at Corby's later in the night.


As he opened the door he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel on the back of his head. He was then blindfolded with a pillowcase and restrained to a chair for what he described felt as "a lifetime" as his captors lie in wait for their intended target. "I didn't really hear anything until the shots were fired", Eichorst recalled to the Notre Dame student paper The Observer.


When Harold Rowley arrived at his home after Eichorst never returned to meet him back at Corby's, he was ambushed. Once in the chest, two to the back of the head; it was in this precise an professional execution that Harold Rowley Jr. met his end.


When he heard the shots, Eichorst reported, he broke free and made his escape shortly after the assailants made theirs. He passed by his boss' lifeless body on his way out to the street before frantically flagging down a cop car, the bloody sight of Harold Rowley haunting him along the way.


A man with enemies


To those who knew him, Harold Rowley was a colorful two-sided character. His public appearance was "eloquent, cooperative, [and] mild mannered", as a South Bend Tribune writer put it. The Ann Arbor, MI, native who also enjoyed his stays in Chicago was often seen cruising South Bend in a luxury car and clad in fur coats. Recounts of the Corby's Tavern owner all express that he played it fast and loose with his funds, or a "cash-flow problem", as Sgt. Thomas Trenerry of the South Bend Police Department put it. It was disclosed he had over 30 liens on his bar and was indicted but later acquitted on charges of fraud involving union pension funds in 1981.



Before Corby's, Rowley owned a furniture wholesale operation out of Elkhart, Indiana. In 1966 he was sued by a Georgia carpet manufacturer for about $17 thousand in bad checks, which is about $160 thousand adjusted for inflation in 2024.


At the time of his death, he was entrenched in a hotly contested divorce with his wife, Rose Kessen Rowley. An anonymous police officer shared with the South Bend Tribune that he was often called to the Rowley residence in the early 1970s on "domestic disturbances". He then went on to recall an instance in which Harold Rowley struck his son in front of several officers and had to be restrained.


The story then thickens from a Midwest cold case into a plot that could've been written by the Coen brothers. According to police, Harold Rowley was quick to flex his connections and name drop figures in the Chicago mafia. One of the names he claimed to have known was Anthony Spilotro. Also known as "Tony the Ant", Spilotro was adapted to the screen by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi in Casino and brought to life by Joe Pesci. Spilotro was sent to Las Vegas on behalf of the Chicago Mob, or the "Outfit", to oversee the mafia's infamous casino skimming operation. But the volatile Spilotro and his hair-trigger impulse brought heat upon a lucrative racket, forcing the Outfit's hand to terminate his services permanently in 1986.


Anthony Spilotro and his younger brother's body were discovered in the secluded cornfields of the unincorporated town of Enos, Indiana (although news reports vary slightly as the area is so rural). Such is life, and such would be brought to the screen in 1995. However, this was eleven years prior in 1984 that Harold Rowley of South Bend, Indiana is dropping names of this caliber.


The extent to which Harold Rowley knew Anthony Spilotro and other Chicago mobsters— or if he was just putting on for appearances— is unclear. But what can be ruled for certain is that he did have enemies. Before the Corby's owner's murder, police say in 1973 he survived an attempt on his life in a hail of bullets while walking down the street in South Bend's sister city of Mishawaka. A motive was never determined. The South Bend Tribune also states there were "unconfirmed reports" that he narrowly dodged a drive by attempt in the Twyckenham Hills neighborhood around the same time, but this too went unresolved.


The Shakedown


Being in the wrong place at the wrong time for his boss's execution would not be the end of James Eichorst's misfortune. About a week passed before three unidentified men came to his house while James was away, he reported. They were looking for him, but instead they found his father at home who they allegedly muscled for information about his son.


"I think after all the publicity about the murder, they may have gotten scared that I saw something that night. But I didn't." - James Eichorst, The Observer

His value to these unknown assailants begged the question: What information did Eichorst know? South Bend Police were asking themselves the same question. In fact, they thought it necessary to put him through a polygraph test in which he passed, the Rushville Republican reported. But investigators still were not satisfied. They floated the idea of using hypnosis to coax the details of Rowley's execution out of Eichorst.


The result of such hypnosis and any other information surrounding the Corby's employee goes cold.


The crooked cop and the femme fatale


" I had no reasons. I don't get personal. I don't get involved. I just do the operation accordingly." - Ronald Tellez

Blue Island, the small suburb just south of Chicago's city limits, was where Ronald Tellez called his home since childhood. He had a stint in the Army from 1975 to 1978 before joining the police force of his hometown the following year. Although he served the law by day, he was a gun for hire by night.


What led authorities to connecting Ronald Tellez to Harold Rowley's murder was a separate case that sensationalized Chicagoland two years after South Bend was left with a cold case. In 1986, a Blue Island business owner was found dead with two gunshots to the back and one to the head— echoes of the Harold Rowley murder. Archer Mueller's body was discovered by his twin brother in the opened vault of his vending machine business, Mueller Amusements Co. There is a tragic irony in the image of a man lying in a bloody pool surrounded by his own wealth, shimmering reflections of both crimson and green. But such was the unfortunate end of Archer Mueller.


Unbeknownst to his family, the vending machine entrepreneur had a marriage kept hidden. His secret bride, Constantina Branco Muller was your classic femme fatale straight from the pages of Raymond Chandler. Connie Branco, as she's referred to in court documents, stood to gain financially from her husband's death. As their relationship grew further distant due in part to Archer Mueller's drinking, Connie pushed for a divorce that Mueller would not grant.





Ronald Tellez had known Connie Branco since 1979 and the two had dated and remained in contact even after Connie married Archer Mueller in 1984. In the bitter January cold of 1986, one of Connie's and Archer Mueller's quarrels grew violent and she was struck, records show. Tellez visited Connie that night where he suggested she "get rid of" Mueller and offered to carry out the grim task. Under the terms of her entrepreneur husband's will, Connie stood to gain 60 percent of Archer Mueller's estate— a fortune estimated between $2- $3 million.


The efforts Tellez went through to cover his tracks after executing Archer Muller are fascinating, to say the least. The second officer to arrive at the scene of the murder was Tellez himself, Blue Island's finest. He went so far as to maintain a diary with fabricated entries detailing his personal investigation into the Mueller killing in the pursuit of making detective, evidence he attempted to use in his defense.

"You're involved in a shooting, it's better than sex. You can't sleep for two or three days. The badge, It's you." - Ronald Tellez

The actions and words of Ronald Tellez tell the story of a man who romanticized organized crime. He had a deep wanting for approval in the criminal underworld and enjoyed the perception of being a contract killer, bragging about his ability to "kill like the mafia does." He took on the murder of Archer Mueller in part to request a meeting with Connie Branco's father, the West Coast mob associate and counterfeiter John Branco. Branco also had loose ties to Anthony Spilotro and was involved in the Vegas casino skim.


Fear and regret consumed Connie after the murder of her estranged husband, and she turned to her father, who was interned at a California state prison, for advice. The former mobster and concerned father advised his shaken daughter to turn herself in.


"My daughter didn't realize what she was getting herself into. It would have ended there." - John Branco

The Feds saw an opportunity to use John Branco to get to Tellez, given his desire for mob approval. The elder Branco was furloughed from prison and fitted with a wire where he then met with the eager gun for hire.


Tellez was further introduced to another undercover FBI agent, John Bonino, a man who had a storied reputation in law enforcement for infiltrating the Mafia. On FBI tapes the widow maker for hire and dilettante gangster was quick to boast about his military experience, criminal capability, and claims he had "hit" the owner of Corby's Tavern in South Bend, IN. And it was through this unfortunate piece of real-life noir that South Bend Police were able to get some clarity on their cold case.


Constantina Branco Mueller was sentenced to a shortened ten years in prison for murder conspiracy due to her cooperation, and her father John Branco returned to serve out his prison sentence in California after enjoying his short stay on the other side helping the federal government.


As if things were not already absurd, in a case unrelated to him, Ronald Tellez's brother, 31-year old Hector Tellez of the neighboring Oak Forest, IL., was arrested in 1986 and sentenced to 18 months for his involvement in a plot to overthrow the small South American nation of Suriname. Undercover FBI agents posing as mercenaries infiltered the group and foiled the coup, evidently funded by a Dutch café owner with ties to the country. Carry on.


The Disappearance of Gary Kessen


The death of Harold Rowley left behind a family, one who was already in turmoil. He had an adult step son, Gary Kessen, through his wife that he was in the process of divorcing. Gary was last seen alive on July 26, 1985, just shy of one year after his step father's murder.


It was his his sister-in-law who last saw Gary Kessen when he dropped off his will and a farewell note to his nephew. After being reported missing by his recently widowed mother, Rose Kessen Rowley, his car was discovered abandoned at the O'Hare International Airport on August 30, 1985. The Chicago airport's labyrinthian parking lot was a mob favorite in the disappearing of victims.


However; during the Mueller murder for hire case, the links between Ronald Tellez and Gary Kessen were brought into light. A 1990 Chicago Tribune article referred to Gary as a "close associate" to Tellez. Court records indicate the two having much contact before and after the death of Kessen's stepfather, Harold Rowley. Kessen and his mother were also natives of Orland Park, IL, just a short jaunt from Blue Island.


A testimony from a girlfriend of Tellez, whom he brought on a trip to South Bend to case out the hit, further revealed that Gary Kessen paid Tellez a "large sum of money" shortly after his stepfather's death. This girlfriend, Laura Steele, added that he took with him on this trip to South Bend a knapsack with gloves and a ski mask.


Kessen went so far as to name Tellez his heir in the will he had hurriedly drawn up shortly before his disappearance.



Our old pal, James Eichorst, testified that his boss always kept a .380 Llama stored in a gun box in a specific spot in his house. During the comb through of the scene of Harold Rowley's murder, that gun was never recovered. It just so happened that two years later when Tellez was arrested for the murder of Archer Mueller, that .380 Llama was found in the Blue Island police officer's car. How did this handgun end up in the possession of Ronald Tellez back in Illinois? Court records further document that it was Gary Kessen who gave his father's .380 to his eventual killer.


The thread that links the two grows more bizarre, as the attorney who oversaw Gary's will was described in court documents as Ronald Tellez's "closest friend". The attorney, James Gentile, is a striking and curious character from what records convey. When not practicing law, occasional gunrunner James Gentile was breaking it. The son of a divorce court judge, he lost his father at age 26 when he and a lawyer were gunned down in his courtroom by an enraged defendant, also an ex-cop. However way this tragedy may have been processed internally by James Gentile, what is reported after is an elaborate downfall into crime.


In 1986 he conspired with the driver of an armored car to rob it of $50,000, and subsequently laundered the money through his law practice. For this he was handed a four-year sentence. It was documented that he stored a collection of guns and ammunition in his apartment that Ronald Tellez had access to. But it wasn't just one Tellez brother who was in tight with James Gentile, so too was Hector, the accused soldier of fortune implicated in the South American coup. Gentile admitted to shipping guns and ammo from Chicago to New Orleans, where Hector Tellez and an FBI-compromised group of mercenaries were bound for the small nation of Suriname.


In an almost Freudian touch, during Tellez's trial Gentile was implicated in a plot to kill his own mother, the Chicago Tribune reported. Violetta Gentile, widow of a slain judge and owner of a trailer park in the south Chicago suburb of Dixmoor, suffered a bullet wound along with an employee during a shooting at her office. No one would ever go on to be identified.


As for Gary Kessen, his disappearance is still shrouded in unfortunate mystery. Although never officially convicted for the crime, Ronald Tellez is believed to be responsible for his death.


Closure


Ronald Tellez, a man who fell for the false romance of life in the mob, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Archer Mueller in 1987. It wasn't until 1992, however, that he was called back to South Bend to stand trial for the murder of Harold Rowley. He was found guilty.


He said it was the 1973 film Serpico that inspired him to become a police officer. In prison he likened himself to Al Pacino's portrayal of Frank Serpico, still maintaining he was an honest cop following the rules. But the moral of Sidney Lumet's crime classic is lost upon Ronald Tellez. As he sat in a prison meeting room with a journalist for a 1998 interview, he motioned to his heart, "Maybe deep in here I'm still a police officer. I'm a hardcore convict now."


The crimes of Ronald Tellez left behind fractured lives. "I wish my dad was there", shared Rick Mueller, the eldest son of Archer. His father's absence hung heavy in the air over family reunions.


The youthful James Eichorst once dreamed of succeeding Harold Rowley in owning Corby's Tavern before he quite literally stumbled into a staged hit. He was even having Rowley put his paychecks towards a savings account for the bar instead of being paid directly to him.

"On July 31, 1984, when Harold Rowley died...James Eichorst's dreams died", a Deputy Prosecutor said.


The story of the Corby's Tavern killing is one that is lost to time in South Bend. Maybe it is for the best that we forget the violence of the past and instead focus on the city's blossoming future. But there too is an insight to gain from tales of vice, if not simply just a cautionary one. Pain and growth share a strong connection; such is life.



Newspaper Archives


TheObserverP1
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.81MB
TheObserverP2.jpg
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.84MB
RowleyCaseContinues
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.50MB









Polygraph
.pdf
Download PDF • 945KB



CopBragged
.pdf
Download PDF • 887KB



Comentários


bottom of page